By Lauren Etter
Apr 1, 2014, 05:40 am CDT
When Alison Monahan, founder of the Girl’s Guide to Law School website, went to a high-profile legal technology conference last year in Silicon Valley, she noticed something missing on the roster of speakers: women.
“There was really only one woman speaking the entire day,” she says. “I thought, ‘Really? That’s the best you can do?’ ”
That day she and some other female audience members decided to form an online group called Law Tech Ladies to cater to the small-but-growing number of women in the blossoming field where law and technology intersect.
“Within a day we had 60 or 70 women in this group—all very interesting, totally legit and doing things in the legal technology space,” Monahan recalls.
Women have long been underrepresented in technical fields such as math, science and engineering, and the tech boom saw a continuation of this tradition. Women are founders at only 3 percent of technology firms, while women-owned high-tech firms receive only 5 percent of all venture capital investments, according to the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.
Today the even narrower field of legal technology is no exception. It’s not that women aren’t interested in the law; women make up nearly half of first-year law students, according to data from the American Bar Association. And it’s not that women aren’t interested in technology. A growing number of venture capital firms focus on funding female-led groups—and more tech groups, such as Girls Who Code, are focused on women in the field. The problem is partly that the field of legal technology is already lagging compared to other industries that have wholeheartedly embraced technology. Lawyers have shunned some time-saving technologies that challenge the supremacy of the billable hour. Also, law is often perceived as esoteric, which can make it a harder sell to venture capitalists.
That leaves a small cadre of females confronting headwinds from both an industry-specific and a gender-specific standpoint. “There really weren’t women lawyers in tech when I started,” says Michele Colucci, founder of Justiquity, a Woodside, Calif., company that operates a series of legal websites including PatentReview.com,LawyerIQ.com and MyLawsuit.com, which connects attorneys with clients on a contingency-fee basis. “There were women lawyers and then women who had gone into business or tech.” Typically not both.
Today, however, more women are leading some of the most interesting and influential companies and concepts in legal technology, from electronic discovery and online patent management to computational law and cloud-based workflow management for attorneys.
Take Nicole Shanahan, founder of ClearAccessIP, an integrated marketplace that connects patent managers and portfolios, helps patent holders manage and monetize their assets, and aids attorneys in building clients’ portfolios and managing licensing deals. Shanahan, a third-year law student at Santa Clara University who also has a self-taught background in computer engineering, got her start in the patent world as a senior in college working for a boutique patent prosecution firm in Seattle. She was drawn to the topic at a time when China was getting ready to the host the 39th Summer Olympics in 2008. “Chinese intellectual property was a big problem,” she says.
She later took an internship working with a Chinese IP law firm in Beijing before returning to the U.S. to work with a group of IP attorneys. At all these firms, she noticed technology was sorely lagging behind the demands of clients. She then went to work for a company called RPX Corp., which specializes in patent licenses. There Shanahan was tasked with designing and building the company’s first large-scale internal patent license management software. The experience was transformative. “They had two problems,” Shanahan recalls. “One was the same problem I had seen everywhere—they had a hard time with their document management. The second problem, which was new to me, was that they needed a new way to track all the interrelated licensing relationships between their clients and their sellers. … Dealing with this was unique, and no one had really built any software for it. That was very enlightening.”
Shanahan then decided to go to law school to work on patent reform issues and to take a research position with Colleen Chien, a Santa Clara law professor and expert in patent law who is also a senior adviser for intellectual property at the White House.
Now in her final year of law school, Shanahan is busily building ClearAccessIP. “I am essentially trying to build and democratize a marketplace platform because not all patent holders and sellers can afford the large transaction firms,” she says. “I’m also solving a very old problem and putting docket management in the cloud. We’re … also the first automated platform, so instead of people manually entering things, we’ve created the first way to automate government data directly to users.”
Shanahan says she was driven to create a service that brings minimalism to an often-complicated IP system. “It’s actually a really beautiful system,” she says. “It’s so simple. For a user to get started, all they need is an application serial number. Then we send that serial number to a relevant [application programming interface] and pull all the data and relevant documents. We put it in a way that a 12-year-old could understand.”
Shanahan’s company charges a monthly subscription fee rather than the typical multiyear contracts used by many legal services providers. As a woman in legal tech, Shanahan says there have been some learning curves. “Fundraising—that was really hard. There were some days that I really questioned what it meant to be a woman in business because it felt so awkward at times to go into a room and to ask for a partnership or an investor. It’s weird because there’s this boys’ club, and they go out to dinner and they have cocktails together.”
She advises women to not lose sight of their mission. “The minute you lose focus and talk too much about your personal life or things that would be perceived as frivolous stereotypes of women, you lose your audience in some way,” she says. “Keeping the attention of your audience with a very clear message of who you are and what your goals are as a company is the most important thing.”
Leads to Lawyers Colucci of MyLawsuit.com had spent years using her legal skills in various ways. During that time, she constantly fielded requests by friends and peers to help them find an appropriate lawyer. Around 2007 she realized that the process of connecting clients with quality lawyers was ripe for disruption, and she started work on her companies. “It’s an incredibly fragmented market with no transparency,” Colucci says. “Lawyers are trying to find business in any way, and individuals are trying to find lawyers in any way. The traditional way has been the referral, but what’s happened with the Web is it’s supplanted that method of finding and identifying appropriate legal representation.”
Law firms have traditionally marketed themselves in a relatively inefficient manner via personal connections, word of mouth, sponsorships, presentations to companies—even the Yellow Pages. On the flipside, individuals often don’t know how to find a quality attorney, or even the standards by which to judge an attorney’s qualifications.
Meanwhile businesses often find themselves hastily searching for law firms or attorneys with a unique set of skills, such as a lawyer with a PhD in a technical sector, a firm that has in-house experts, or a national firm that can address nationwide consumer complaints. “The law has become so much more specialized,” she says. “Would you go to a foot doctor for heart surgery? People really don’t know what a lawyer does and doesn’t know.”
That’s where MyLawsuit.com, officially launched in 2011, comes in. On the consumer side, the site connects individuals who have matters appropriate for contingency representations to lawyers who will take those cases on a contingency fee basis. She uses a proprietary and patented bidding platform that allows lawyers to input salient features of their law practice so they can be identified and notified when correlating case features appear from a prospective client. The platform also helps consumers select an attorney in a more transparent way, so that they have a better understanding of the attorney’s legal qualifications and specialties.
On the enterprise side (which Colucci is getting ready to launch later this year), her site will connect general counsel of medium and large companies with law firms for negotiated fee arrangements, such as fixed fees, blended fees, contingency fees or other types of alternative fee arrangements.
On the consumer side, she earns money by having the client sign a lien that gives her 5 percent of whatever the client recovers, and then the lawyer also acknowledges that arrangement. (Lawyers using the consumer site pay nothing to find clients through the platform.) She says this is a win-win for everybody. “Lawyers are used to giving over 11 percent to 16 percent for a referral,” she says. “The client is no worse off—and they’re often better off—and the lawyer is better off. And we get enough to keep our platform alive.” She charges attorneys using the enterprise service an annual platform fee if and when they choose to become active and bid on a matter.
Being a woman in the legal tech space has been eye-opening for Colucci. “Every panel discussion I went to, I was definitely one of the only women—if not the only one—and definitely the only woman in legal,” she says.
“Crossing that funding divide has always been hard for me. Asking for money feels weird,” she says. “Women—we are trained to be givers, and it’s very hard to receive. I had to retool my thinking to get in front of investors.” Her advice to other women working with legal tech startups is to focus on the opportunity they are giving investors with their business plan. Colucci recalls one of her business advisers explaining it this way: “I’m an investor and you’re offering me a great opportunity. You’re not doing me any favors.” Ultimately, Colucci says, being a woman shouldn’t be the focus. It boils down to: “Do you know what you’re talking about, can you answer the questions, and do you have intelligent answers?”
Female leaders riding the boom in legal tech are popping up around the world. Serena Manzoli lives in Italy and recently co-founded the site Peppercorn, an online platform that automates the drafting of contracts in several languages, a necessity in Europe. With Peppercorn, individuals will be able to draft their own contracts in multiple languages by answering a number of questions in their native tongue and then letting the software draft the contract in both the native language and any other language specified. (For now, the beta site is only offering contracts in English and Italian, but Manzoli anticipates growing the site to also accommodate German, French and Spanish.)
Manzoli is passionate about the topic. “We want to take out legalese from our legal documents and we want to give the law back to the people—make it simple, make it affordable and make it understandable,” she says.
And though legal technology is a vast field, it doesn’t always entail complicated algorithms or sophisticated databases. Mariya Badeva-Bright, co-founder of the African Legal Information Institute, has discovered that simply digitizing the law can provide a powerful service.
Badeva-Bright, who has a law degree and a master’s in law and information technology, moved to South Africa fresh out of law school and realized that there was no free or commercial database that would give her access to South African or regional law. That’s largely because in Africa it hasn’t been commercially viable to publish law reports, and national resources are scarce.
She decided to use her legal and technological skills to tackle the problem. Around 2004 she started digitizing African case law and legislation and publishing it for free. The website has grown from a database of a few hundred documents to tens of thousands. And she feels like her site has made a tremendous difference. “Before these free access-to-law projects existed, there was virtually no access to the law,” she says. “You would find judges, lawyers, academics, law students—really the entire legal profession—relying on outdated books of legislation and case law.” She says some countries until recently were using law reports that were published in the 1970s. And many attorneys were relying on case law from outside their countries because they had no way to access internal law. Badeva-Bright’s institute, which is funded by diverse organizations including the Open Society Foundations, the African Technology and Transparency Initiative and the Indigo Trust, recently started offering its expertise in sourcing, digitizing and publishing law to a growing number of African countries. “Legal information is a digital common property,” she says, “and people should have access to it.”
WOMEN AIDING WOMEN
Often, female lawyers have taken to the Internet to help other women thrive in the legal world. Take Monahan’s site, the Girl’s Guide to Law School. Monahan graduated from Columbia Law School in 2006 and went to work for a federal district judge in Massachusetts before working for a large patent litigation firm in San Francisco. While in law school, Monahan had a tough time adapting to the culture and found the experience to be “more unpleasant than it needed to be,” she says. She began researching some of the psychological effects that law school often has on students and found that women often have a harder time adapting than men.
“They tend not to do as well academically as you would predict based on LSAT scores and undergrad grades,” Monahan says. “All these things made me think there are some gendered issues here, and the law in general was more gendered than I expected.” Monahan, who has experience as a website developer and a computer programmer, started writing a book designed to help women succeed in law school. But her blog took off instead, so she focused her energy on that.
Today her extremely popular blog is ranked on the ABA Journal‘s Blawg 100 list. She and her San Francisco-based business partner, Lee Burgess, have parlayed the blog’s success into other online legal businesses, including the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox, both online learning resources for law students and professionals.
Yael Citro is the co-founder of LawPal, a subscription-based online platform that helps improve efficiency for attorneys by automating their workflow through a suite of tools, such as document creation, interactive checklists and assistance with all sorts of legal filings. “Our ultimate goal is for lawyers to spend as much time as possible on high-level advice-giving and as little time as possible on non-law-related tasks,” Citro says. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Citro spent most of her career at Latham & Watkins. She’s lived and worked as an attorney all across the world, from New York City to London to Israel. “Irrespective of where I found myself geographically, there were the same frustrations as a lawyer with all the non-law-related tasks that you have to do and that you have to bill clients for,” she says. “These things take an incredible amount of time, and it’s not something that you had to have gone to law school to do. Nor is it something that you can justify billing your clients for. That was just across the board on three continents.” After meeting her co-founder, Alex Halliday—also the founder of SocialGo, a UK company that provides social networking software—they started their venture as a document automation platform. Soon they realized it wasn’t the right idea. Next they pivoted toward a sort of social network for lawyers. Still, “we felt like we weren’t having a big enough impact on what was causing a big amount of pain in the lawyer-client relationship, which is the way in which lawyers currently work. They are terribly inefficient, and that inefficiency is resulting in real frustration on the part of the clients who don’t understand what they’re paying for.”
So Citro and Halliday started focusing on how they could make the process of lawyering more efficient, transparent and friendly to clients. LawPal was born.
LawPal, based in San Francisco, is geared toward lawyers eager to use technology to practice in a more agile, transparent and cost-effective way.
Citro’s advice to other women in the legal tech space is to set aside gender issues as much as possible and stay focused on the company.
“As a founder of a company—female or male—your job is to focus people on the right things, which are building a great company and a great product.”
ROOM FOR MORE
As the field of legal tech grows, the law will increasingly gravitate toward even more innovation, and much of that will inevitably come from the brilliant women already populating the ranks.
And it’s already changing.
Roland Vogl, executive director at both the Stanford Program in Law, Science & Technology and at CodeX—the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, says he’s seeing more women in the field.
“When we started out with our center, it was kind of rare to see women come to our group meetings,” Vogl says. “In the recent past, more women have been coming—women entrepreneurs with interesting ideas.” In fact, Vogl says that the most recent annual CodeX conference, a hub for legal tech entrepreneurs, drew more women than ever. In the future there could be even more. He says CodeX doesn’t currently have any female-specific events or panels but adds: “We should do something like that.”
So, ladies, stay tuned.
Click here to view the 10 women to watch in legal tech gallery now.